Tag Archives: carols

Why Christmas?

There are several ways Christians view the Christmas season. Some go at it with reckless abandon – house full of lights, presents galore, fridge full of eggnog, Bing Crosby and The Carpenters blaring on the radio. Others shun it altogether, citing it as unbiblical, or even pagan. Many are somewhere in between, feeling confused, wanting to be faithful but wondering what to make of this time of year. I suppose my family falls into this latter category. Like most Christians around the globe we observe the holiday, but struggle to find the best way to do so. How much emphasis on the decorations, or the presents? How do we rightly instruct the children? Is all of this really necessary? Certainly, there are excesses this time of year, yet also a lot to celebrate. So … what do we do about it?

Well, this post isn’t about whether or not Christmas is pagan (that will be another post). And it’s not to preach a definite “do this” or “don’t do that” regarding presents and trees and such. Rather, my goal is to lay out some basic principles – or, better, emphases – to guide us during this season.

Adoration of the Magi (1632) - Rembrandt.  public domain

Adoration of the Magi (1632) – Rembrandt. public domain

Number One: celebrate the coming of the promised Messiah

Try to forget, for a moment, cute children singing “Happy Birthday Jesus.” That’s most certainly not the point of Christmas. There’s a much more edifying way to look at it. Think of it this way: there was a time in history before Christ. Yes, of course, but what does that mean? For the Jews, he was the long promised fulfillment of dozens of ancient prophecies. They longed for his coming, spending time in a lengthy exile and under foreign subjugation in their own land. For me, as a Gentile, it also means a whole lot. Prior to his coming there was no redemption, no hope of eternal life, no giving of the Holy Spirit. There were no Gospels instructing us about God’s ways. There was only hopelessness, the fearful truth that death would come, but without a sure knowledge of what would come afterward.

Jesus changed everything. His entrance into the world was epoch-making. If he hadn’t come, I would be doomed. Because he did come, I’m saved. “But I’m a Gentile!”  “Yes, but now you’re mine too.”

That’s why I celebrate this time of year. Yes, we should also remember his resurrection and long for his return. But that doesn’t mean we cannot have a time when his first coming is celebrated. This coming – or Advent – demands our primary focus. It’s a time to reflect on our own blessings, as well as point others to the purpose behind his advent.

Number Two: don’t be too distracted

There is a yearly tendency to get wrapped up, so to speak, in all of the hustle and bustle of the season itself. Lots of gifts to buy, decorations to put up, travel plans to make, dinners to cook. None of these in and of themselves are wrong. However, they can become problematic if our focus is taken off Christ. If that occurs, the whole holiday is just an end-of-the-year party, devoid of any spiritual merit. How easily this happens! My advice (and this includes myself) is to know thyself. Take a daily inventory of where you’ve focused time and energy. Know when the season threatens to steal your true joy. Make it a point to meditate on Scripture, particularly those relating to salvation in Christ. And direct your children consistently to those same vital truths.

Number Three: don’t spend too much time fretting over what Christmas has “become”

Yes, Christmas is over-commercialized. This has been going on for many decades. Charlie Brown even lamented this in the 1960’s. The fact is that Christmas to the world is completely secular. It’s all about being with family, sharing gifts, Santa, and hoping for snow. But instead allowing this lack of spiritual focus to annoy us, it should remind us to pray, and to use every opportunity to engage the culture with the truth. The irony of Christmas is that most people reject the very one in whose name they celebrate. Our task is to show them what they’re missing. We can also pray that while they sing or record some of the traditional carols, some of those biblical lyrics will lead them to think about him of whom they sing.

Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the incarnate deity,
Pleased as Man with Man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today.

For lo the days are hastening on
By prophets seen of old
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold
When the new heaven and earth
Shall own the prince of peace
Their King
And the whole world
Send back the song
Which now the angels sing

[In order, Hark the Herald Angels Sing (verse 2); O Little Town of Bethlehem (verse 4); It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (verse 4)]

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“Hark!” Listen to Those Lyrics

Categorize this one as: “Do you know what you’re listening to?”

One of the most beloved musical groups of all time is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (MTC).  The Grammy Award winning group began in the 19th century and has been a household name since the at least the middle of the 20th.  The richness of their vocals and the beautiful arrangements has made the MTC popular with music lovers of all stripes – including Christians who might otherwise find Mormon doctrine unpalatable.  It’s simply hard to find better renditions of many classic hymns of the faith.  But herein lies a major problem.  A close listen to some of the MTC versions reveals some subtle, yet relevant, lyrical changes taking place.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the classic carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” 

In the Charles Wesley hymn, the second stanza of verse two traditionally reads: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity; pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.”  Here we have a beautifully poetic verse celebrating Christ’s deity and His God-man nature.  Wesley draws not only from the birth narratives, but also from the opening chapter of John’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” (1:1)

“And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” (1:14)

According to John, Jesus is the Word that existed before all things, who became a human to live among humanity.  Indeed, this Word is God Himself.  This view of Christ’s deity has been present within Christianity since the earliest days.  Despite some recent efforts to attribute the worship of Jesus as God to later councils, the earliest writings of the church indicate a well-established belief in Jesus as eternal God.  Distinct from the Father, yes, but very much God.

So where does the MTC come in?  If you listen to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” you will find the following change:

Mormon Tabernacle Choir:  “Veiled in flesh, our Lord is he, Savior through eternity.”

Original: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate deity.”

There’s nothing particularly troubling about the lyric itself.  It doesn’t quite fit as well contextually as the original, but that can be overlooked.  What is bothersome is the fact that it was changed in the first place.  Why make such a change?  The answer lies in Mormon doctrine.  Mormons have a completely different understanding of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit than historic Christianity.  In Latter-Day Saint (LDS) theology, God the Father was once just a man like us, having walked on his own planet (Kolob, actually) at some time in the distant past.  He is one of a countless other gods ruling an unknown, but vast, number of worlds.  The god of this particular area has a literal wife, and through celestial sex, the spirits of all are created.  The first of these offspring was the “Son”, later to come to Earth as Jesus.  Faithful Mormons will reach exaltation someday too, becoming gods of their own world somewhere.  A famous sermon from none other than founder Joseph Smith lays it out:

“First, God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto one of yourselves . . . if you were to see Him today, you would see Him in all the person, image, fashion, and very form of a man, like yourselves.

“For I am going to tell you how God came to be God and what sort of a being He is. For we have imagined that God was God from the beginning of all eternity. I will refute that idea . . .”

“You have got to learn how to make yourselves Gods in order to save yourselves and be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done”

“The Head Father of the Gods. In the beginning the Head of the Gods called a council of the Gods. The Gods came together and concocted a scheme to create this world and the inhabitants.

(Taken from Stan Larson, The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text .  BYU: 1978.  Taken  from http://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/18.2Larson.pdf.   Accessed 12/13/10.)

Much more could be said, but it is quite clear why the MTC does not sing of Jesus as being a part of the “Godhead,” or as “deity.”  They do not sing what they do not believe.  The question for Christians is this: will we sing songs containing teaching that we don’t really believe – or at least what the Bible does not teach?  Further, will we continue to listen to the MTC’s theologically altered hymns, thinking that it’s unimportant, or “close enough”?  Theology does matter, and if we listen closely to what’s coming through the earbuds from of our mp3’s, we might just be surprised.

  

Highly Recommended Reading:

Richard Abanes, One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church (Thunder’s Mouth Press: New York, 2003).        

     This is an absolutely fascinating read.  If you like history, or even fast-paced historical novels, this book is for you.  Abanes thoroughly researches (142 pages of notes) the beginnings of the LDS up until the present.  He also gives a helpful comparison of Mormon teachings with historic Christian teachings (ch. 17).  I truly wish every Mormon, and at least every Christian pastor, would read this work.

James White, Is the Mormon My Brother? Discerning the Differences Between Mormonism and Christianity (Bethany House: Minneapolis, 1997)

     White’s book is not a hit piece against Mormonism.  White has been in discussion and debate with Mormons for many years, so he knows what they teach.  This book is full of helpful information relating to LDS teaching, primarily their views on God and how it relates to biblical teaching.

Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nelson: Nashville, 2006).

     Bock’s book is primarily about the so-called Gnostic texts, how they measure up with the Bible, and how historically reliable they are.  But within the book is a helpful discussion of early Christian beliefs regarding the deity of Jesus.  This is a good popular level introduction to the earliest extra biblical writings on Christ’s deity.

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